She stands, stretches. Is this what she needs to do to deal with the problem? I won’t give advice. Or ask for an historical perspective such as when she first noticed it was crooked? In fact, my mind entertains no thoughts at all. I am taken aback at the unexpected direction in which the hour seems headed.
Then she walks to the opposite wall and straightens an abstract painting that from her vantage point could, I suppose, be construed as a female body part, depending on one’s perspective. Others observe that perhaps the picture that is “her vagina” is straight but the wall itself is crooked. Our friend straightens the picture and sits down. The room does seem to tilt toward the windows at the cafe where my weekly group meets. A second friend remarks that her fireplace isn’t straight and the large television screen above it seems crooked but isn’t. Again, it depends on perspective.
Some time ago, we had stopped talking much about what had brought us together in the first place – weight issues and how to improve our eating habits or, for that matter, improve ourselves. Fixating on changing deeply ingrained habits didn’t feel wise or interesting. Our weekly hour together has become more than figuring out what’s wrong. In fact, it seems as if the real value of meeting is sharing perspectives. The world I inhabit, the world of the 127 dharma podcasts, the ring of the singing bowls I can’t seem to do without is very unlike the world of my friends.
One friend knows football! I love hearing her talk about the 49ers from the perspective of someone who has really liked Alex Smith, the quarterback, when everyone else, the press included, was dinging the young man. I was curious if she planned to buy seats in the new Santa Clara facility. I had already made up my mind that it was a rip off and an example of corporate greed. But when I heard how she reasoned before deciding, I stifled my opinion. I was happy she was happy.
Another of my friends is a minister in a faith I would not choose to follow. Yet hearing her talk about her personal convictions and her experiences with her church interests me more than any urge to mount an opinion and charge into a dispute about faith.
In the course of facilitating our discussions, I may introduce what I think is a profound topic. Often, I learn that when seen from other group members’ perspective, this “topic” is neither profound nor an issue, but part of the human condition. After a questioning “oh,” my “oh-so-serious” drains away, and the issue settles into another occasion for multiple points of view.
However, there are sometimes ideas or vantage points that are totally unavailable to me, and no amount of trying to look from another perspective works. This is especially true for me with logical folks who read or write budget reports or navigate numerical concepts. I realize not knowing doesn’t mean I am stupid or need to change. I can do fine without this point of view. There will always be other people who can explain what I don’t know. That’s the beauty of being part of an interconnected, interdependent world.
Maria Konnikova in “Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: The Importance of Perspective Taking” writes, “Perspective-taking is a tremendously difficult endeavor. It is far simpler to use yourself as the prototypical actor, often without realizing you’re doing so, instead of separating yourself entirely from the exercise. But it is nevertheless an essential skill. And so, we must use every possible tool at our disposal to improve our ability to see the world from a vantage point that isn’t our own.”
I agree with Maria; yet it isn’t always easy to avoid being frustrated or shut down when I don’t “get” someone else’s perspective. This happens a lot at congregational budget meetings.
Luckily for me, sitting meditation eases my distress with not knowing or having the tools to see what I am ill-equipped to see. By just sitting I create a container for not knowing. When I am just sitting with “monkey mind” at rest, without an opinion, aware of the in-breath, aware of the out-breath, I am acquiring a perspective some call the “ocean,” others “Big Mind" within which swim all points of view.
From this acquired vantage point, I can see the big picture including the one on the wall in the back of the café that looks like a vagina to one of my friends.